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Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

I was recently browsing some of the units I completed for my counselling diploma – for revision. The human memory has not evolved to store, organise, categorise and recall all the large amounts of information we collect every day, nor is our memory always accurate. It’s important for counsellors and therapists to keep up to date with new approaches to counselling, and it doesn’t hurt to read over learned materials from college days. I thought I’d provide some learning about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for readers.

Just to acknowledge the work of others, most of what is written below, I have retrieved and paraphrased from ACCEPTANCE AND COMMITMENT THERAPY Published by: Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors Pty Ltd.

Acceptance and commitment therapy, known as ACT (pronounced as the word ‘act’), is an approach to counselling that was originally developed in the early 1980s by Steven C. Hayes, and became popular in the early 2000’s through Hayes’ collaboration with Kelly G. Wilson, and Kirk Strosahl as well as through the work of Russ Harris. You can look them up on Youtube or Google if you’re interested in what they might have to say about ACT.

“Unlike more traditional cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) approaches, ACT does not
seek to change the form or frequency of people’s unwanted thoughts and emotions. Rather,
the principal goal of ACT is to cultivate psychological flexibility, which refers to the ability to
contact the present moment, and based on what the situation affords, to change or persist
with behaviour in accordance with one’s personal values. To put it another way, ACT
focuses on helping people to live more rewarding lives even in the presence of undesirable
thoughts, emotions, and sensations.”

(Flaxman, Blackledge & Bond, 2011, p. vii)

ACT interventions tend to focus around two main processes:

  • Developing acceptance of unwanted private experiences that are outside of personal
    control.
  • Commitment and action toward living a valued life (Harris, 2009)

In a nutshell, ACT gets its name from its core ideas of accepting what is outside of your personal control and committing to action that improves and enriches your life.

Cognitive Defusion is the process of learning to detach ourselves from our thought processes and simply observe them for what they are – “transient private events – an ever-changing stream of words, sounds and pictures” (Harris, 2006, p. 6). I think this component of ACT is incredibly beneficial if we practice it daily. I like to say, just like the function of the heart is to pump oxygenated blood around the body, one of the brain’s functions is to have thoughts. We can observe thoughts without taking them to mean more than what they are. Some thoughts are automatic, some are subconscious, and some are unconscious or preconscious beliefs that we consider to be true and factual and “rules” about how the world operates and how we have to operate in it. If someone is defused from their thought processes, these processes do not have control on the person; instead the person is able to simply observe them without getting caught up in them or feel the need to change/control them.

Acceptance is the process of opening oneself up and “making room for unpleasant feelings, sensations, urges, and other private experiences; allowing them to come and go without struggling with them, running from them, or giving them undue attention” (Harris, 2006, p. 7). Practicing acceptance is important because it encourages the individual to develop an ability and willingness to feel uncomfortable without being overwhelmed by it (Flaxman, Blackledge & Bond, 2011). It’s important to acknowledge that to accept something doesn’t mean we like it or have a passive attitude. It is to accept something exactly as it is and then we choose what to do with it. Think of the Serenity Prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Contact with the present moment is the concept of being “psychologically present” and bringing full attention to the “here-and-now” experience (Harris, 2009). I’d also argue that to psychologically present, we must also be aware of our physical body and the sensations within it and outside of it. Because we have the ability to think about the past and about the future, sometimes it can be difficult to stay in the present (Batten, 2011; Harris, 2009). Having contact with the present moment is essential because that it where we find out anchor and power. We have the ability to pay attention in a flexible manner to the present moment and connect with that experience rather than ruminate on past events or future possibilities (Lloyd & Bond, 2015). Some of you might say “What if I can’t stand the present moment?”. True. If you have extreme emotional experiences or have a history of trauma, it may be functional for you to use distraction or talking to someone when the present moment is “too much to take”. What we want to work towards is using healthy coping strategies in the present moment mindfully, instead of behaviours that no longer serve us.

Values, and identifying them, (i.e., what is important to the individual) is a central element of ACT because it assists clients to move in the direction of living and creating a meaningful life. One of the central goals of ACT is to help clients to connect with the things they value most and to travel in “valued directions” (Stoddard & Afari, 2014).

Committed action is the process of taking steps towards one’s values even in the presence of unpleasant thoughts and feelings (Harris, 2009). Behavioural interventions, such as goal setting, exposure, behavioural activation, and skills training, are generally used to create committed action. The ACT model acknowledges that learning is not enough, one must also take action to create change.

Self-as-context, or what I prefer to call “the observing self” or simply just our self-awareness, creates a distinction between the ‘thinking self’ and the ‘observing self’ (Harris, 2009). The thinking self refers to the self that generates thoughts, beliefs, memories, judgments, fantasies, and plans, whereas the observing self is the self that is aware of what we think, feel, sense, or do (Harris, 2009). “From this perspective, you are not your thoughts and feelings; rather, you are the context or arena in which they unfold” (Stoddard & Afari, 2014). Being aware of the observing self allows an individual to have a greater ability to be mindful and in the present moment, as they can separate themselves from the thoughts, beliefs, and memories they have.

Be Good To Yourself: The ACT Matrix | Therapy worksheets, Therapy quotes,  Psychology quotes

Problematic Thinking Styles (continued)Problematic Thinking Styles (continued)

Hello readers! A few of the cognitive styles below were mentioned in my last post. As humans, we have a tendency to forget things so a bit of revision can be useful.

Many people have cognitive processes that result in overall unhelpful thinking styles that they tend to apply globally across situations and which may result in emotional distress (such as depression or anxiety) or unhelpful behaviours (such as anger or avoidance). Some of the most problematic thinking styles are listed in the extract below.


Mental Filter: This thinking styles involves a “filtering in” and “filtering out” process – a sort of “tunnel vision”, focusing on only one part of a situation and ignoring the rest. Usually this means looking at the negative parts of a situation and forgetting the positive parts, and the whole picture is coloured by what may be a single negative detail.


Jumping to Conclusions: I’m sure you’ve heard people say on television, “Don’t jump to conclusions” or “The truth is we just don’t know yet”. We jump to conclusions when we assume that we know what someone else is thinking (mind reading) and when we make predictions about what is going to happen in the future (predictive thinking).


Personalisation: This involves blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong or could go wrong, even when you may only be partly responsible or not responsible at all. You might be taking 100% responsibility for the occurrence of external events.


Catastrophising: Catastrophising occurs when we “blow things out of proportion” and we view the situation as terrible, awful, dreadful, and horrible, even though the reality is that the problem itself is quite small. A helpful restructuring of this cognition is to ask yourself if the situation will still be awful, terrible, or dreadful in a month. There may be ongoing consequences or stress involved if you lose a job or a relationship ends, so validate the experience you are having but also take a look at the big picture. What’s the worst that could happen? Why is the worst so “bad”? And if you are being realistic about the issue, reach out for some help if you can.


Black & White Thinking: This thinking style involves seeing only one extreme or the other. You are either wrong or right, good or bad and so on. There are no in-betweens or shades of grey.


Should-ing and Must-ing: Sometimes by saying “I should…” or “I must…” you can put unreasonable demands or pressure on yourself and others. Although these statements are not always unhelpful (e.g. “I should not get drunk and drive home”), they can sometimes create unrealistic expectations.


Overgeneralisation: When we overgeneralise, we take one instance in the past or present, and impose it on all current or future situations. If we say “You always…” or “Everyone…”, or “I never…” then we are probably overgeneralising.


Labelling: We label ourselves and others when we make global statements based on behaviour in specific situations. We might use this label even though there are many more examples that aren’t consistent with that label.


Emotional Reasoning: This thinking style involves basing your view of situations or yourself on the way you are feeling. For example, the only evidence that something bad is going to happen is that you feel like something bad is going to happen. I live with anxiety and it can be debilitating at times. I use my “wiser thinking” or “rational thinking” to evaluate whether I am operating from an emotional mindset. You might ask yourself: “What’s the evidence?”, “Does the past necessarily predict the future?”, “Am I angry or fearful right now because that might be clouding my judgement?”. It can be helpful to talk to someone who isn’t caught in your emotional headspace, or perhaps wait for the emotion to subside to think about the situation again.


Magnification and Minimisation: In this thinking style, you magnify the positive attributes of other people and minimise your own positive attributes. It’s as though you’re explaining away your own positive characteristics.

(CCI, 2008)

Cognitive (thinking) ErrorsCognitive (thinking) Errors

Well, hello and good morning, afternoon, and evening readers. I truly hope you’re swimming in the pleasantries of life rather than keeping your head above water in the unpleasant swamp. HOPE = Hold On Pain Ends. And there’s generally a learning or personal growth that comes after the storm of every painful experience, even if it’s simply greater empathy and compassion for others.

Today’s the day to learn or remember the fallacies of the human mind. I am not as smart as I look, haha. Have you heard of heuristics before? In cognitive psychology, a heuristic is a mental “shortcut” that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently. They can be very helpful in many situations, but they can also lead to cognitive biases, errors in thinking, and even perhaps without the mental shortcut, our thinking is often filled to the brim with cognitive distortions, assumptions and fallacies (faults). Awareness raising is probably the first step to identify our own cognitive traps and also identify them in others. Cognitive errors are natural – we all have them. Below are some cognitive distortions/errors to be aware of when we reflect on our interactions with people, during personal reflection, and when making meaningful decisions or judgements.

  • ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING (aka. POLARISED THINKING, SPLITTING, and BLACK-AND-WHITE THINKING: is extreme thinking i.e., the error in a person’s thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole. It is a common defense mechanism. Before you think “I must have really shitty thinking because I do this ALL the time”, give yourself a break. If you’re thinking in black and white, you probably internalised this from social media, television and movies, your family of origin and the broader society. Be mindful of using extreme, dichotomist terms, such as “failure”, “success”, “best”, “worst”, “freezing”, “boiling”, “everything”, and “nothing”. If you think “I’m a terrible person”, that is bullshit and inaccurate. You may have behaved terribly for a period of time towards yourself, to someone else, or towards some “thing”, but we cannot discount all the NON-terrible qualities about you. We must THINK in DIALECTICS i.e., the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives with reason and wisdom or in other words being able to have two contradictory viewpoints, where a greater truth emerges from their interplay. The truth is, if you think you’re a terrible person, there’s also virtuous person in there too.
  • OVERGENERALISTION: The words “always”, “every” and “never” come into play here, and you have an unshakable “rule” or “conviction” about yourself, something, or someone, based on one or two incidences. Overgeneralising is “a cognitive distortion in which an individual views a single event as an invariable RULE, so that, for example, failure at accomplishing one task will predict an endless pattern of defeat in all tasks.” Coming into the present moment and being specific can be helpful if you are someone who overgeneralises. You may also want to ask yourself if what your saying is the really the truth. Is it really accurate or correct. There’s an assumption that because something has happened once or a few times that it’s like going to happen every time. Remember, the words “always”, “every”, and “never” frequently appear in this cognitive “trap”. I encourage you to look at the big picture and ask yourself if what you’re saying or thinking is accurate. Overgeneralisations tend to be vague and board statements e.g., “I always get every red light”. Perhaps this is part of our evolutionary negativity bias. We tend to notice the so-called “bad” and overlook the so-called “good”. If you find yourself using overgeneralisations that suggest a future prediction (e.g., “I’ll never get a partner) … use some humour – you may have big balls but neither one of them are crystal – VEEP. If there is some truth to unusually frequent and specific situations that are making your life unpleasant, validate them, talk to someone, and brainstorm some solutions. We humans have plenty of blind spots that others can see sometimes.

  • MENTAL FILTER: is considered to be the opposite to OVERGENERALISATION the mental filter takes one small event and focuses on it exclusively, filtering out anything else that’s relevant. Filtering out the positive and focusing on the negative can have a detrimental impact on your mental well-being. Filtering out the so-called “negative” can also make one a bit hubris (excessive pride or self-confidence), arrogant, vain and conceited – and then you’re just a stone’s throw away from narcissism.

  • PERSONALISATION AND BLAME: Personalization and blame is a cognitive distortion whereby you entirely blame yourself, or someone else, for a situation that in reality involved many factors that were out of your control. I think this is a symptom of our wounded ego, or simply just the ego. As human’s we are egocentric, like children, and we often think that circumstances in our environment are solely because of our influence. For example, your friend isn’t behaving like they usually do, so it must be because you have done something.

Again, personalisation is an egocentric error in cognition. “Of course it has to do with me”, we think. It makes sense that we personalise things. We are the star of our own show, our own narrative. If you personalise something, it means we’ve directly influenced it – we are the primary cause. This may elicit internal pain, shame or guilt, so what’s the pay-off? Personalisation is a cognitive error that offers us the illusion of control e.g., “If we caused it then we will learn how to not cause it again, and maybe even undo what we have caused”. If you think about it, personalising something is something children do. Remember, there are infinite variables in any situation to take full credit of the outcome. That being said, it is responsible and mature to reflect objectively on the influence of our behaviour and what we can learn about our shortcomings.

Blame deserves it’s own blog post but in short, it can be defined as a defence mechanism to protect the self from feeling some unwanted emotion or thinking something unacceptable in relation to the “self”. Blaming provides a way of devaluing others, an the pay-off or reinforcement the blamer receives is a sense of superiority. It protects our ego from feeling responsible for something, and protects us from feeling guilt or shame. Perfectionists are very good at blaming others, and themselves. Even if you genuinely think faulting someone or something is valid, remember that no one is perfect. Recognise that you are human and others are fallible humans. As they say in recovery, “there is a bit of bad in the best of us and a bit of good in the worst of us“. We may have internalised from society and culture that we couldn’t make mistakes (because we receive “punishment” for making mistakes) but we must move beyond that now. As adults, we need to get real. Validate your experience because it may be very disappointing when we don’t meet others or our own expectations. We must nurture and care for the wounded child. Lets attend and befriend to our shortcomings and accept we are not superhuman. Learn to expect you will make mistakes. Failure is kind of an illusion, isn’t it? Or maybe a social construct? “Failure” is really learning – replace ‘failure’ with the word ‘feedback’. Would a cat or dog blame them self for a “mistake”? In the minds of animals, there’s no such concept as failure or a mistake.

Here’s a link to website “simplypsychology” that discusses a theory called Attribution Theory, an idea about how people explain the causes of behaviour and events: Attribution Theory – Situational vs Dispositional | Simply Psychology

Nature’s Effect On Our Mental HealthNature’s Effect On Our Mental Health

Adapted from Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors, Institute Inbrief, Edition 359.

Good day readers! How are you? … Shit? Depressed? Anxious? Angry? First of all, if you’re someone who says “I feel shit”, I would encourage you to use a more accurate descriptor instead of shit. Tell your brain what emotion or feeling you are experiencing. Shit can mean a lot of things. When we’re able to identify an emotion, it’s more likely we’ll be able to regulate or manage it. When I was learning Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, they had a saying: Name it to claim it to tame it. They also encouraged us to distance our identity from our feelings e.g., “I’m having the feeling that I’m angry” rather than “I’m angry”. I know it sounds like simple fluff but there is a profound difference between observing the experience of anger, loneliness, fear, guilt etc. and believing we (the self) are the embodiment or a manifestation of an emotion.

Alright, moving along to the subject of the article. The Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors sent me their monthly (I think it’s monthly) Institute Inbrief. If you’re someone who has lived with a mental health disorder or emotional difficulties for a long time, being in nature is not really a new antidote from the field. And it’s not always as simple as just going out into nature. When I was deep in the abyss of my own depression, there wasn’t a lot that would change my mood or perception of life. But, we do these practices anyway – and that’s kind of the point. It’s a practice. It may have to be initiated using a bit of self-force. Oftentimes, motivation comes after we begin the motion.

So, here are some examples from the article that support ‘nature has a therapeutic effect for the mind and body’:

  • One study found that women who looked at pictures of nature for two minutes had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Gillespie, et al., 2019).
  • Another study showed that people who walked in a forest preserve showed lower levels of hostility, aggression and anxiety than they did before the walk.
  • Gregory Bratman, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, and colleagues shared evidence that contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, subjective well-being, positive affect, positive social interactions and a sense of meaning and purpose in life, as well as decreases in mental distress (Science Advances, Vol. 5, No. 7, 2019).

How can we most effectively reap the mental health benefits that nature offers?

Why nature?

I’m aware we’re in Covid-19 lockdown and restrictions at the moment (27/09/2021) so you will need to determine for yourself if what proceeds to be written is practical and realistic for you right now.

We need to understand that the psyche of the human-being is linked to the natural world in many important ways. The human brain constantly processes and assimilates incoming information, and it relies on external stimuli for guidance regarding how to think and behave. Not only does incorporating nature into our daily lives help us understand the world better, but it can also contextualise ourselves in accordance with this understanding; humans – as an animal – have evolved in tandem with the natural world, and thus it is able to promote the development of beneficial skills including improved visual–spatial acuity, attentional abilities, and memory (Oddie, 2019). Our world is full of beautiful and intricate natural structures, and even just a simple walk through a park can provide us with moments of joy, awe, and wonder (Fiebert et al., 1980; Lefebvre & Brucker, 2018).

Additionally, the seemingly chaotic stimulus that nature provides us with promotes creativity and abstract thought (Berman, et al., 2012); these qualities have been the cornerstone of our species’ evolutionary development over the past few thousand years, thus illustrating the primacy of our relationship with nature.

Our neurobiology is extremely complex, and as such cannot be reduced to simple terms. However, we can say with some certainty that our brains’ sophisticated processing systems are enhanced by our interactions with nature. Our brain naturally integrates external stimuli into existing mental frameworks—this is referred to as “cognitive recursion” (Oddie, 2019). This means that if we spend our time in environments that were designed and created by the human mind, then we are putting ourselves in an echo chamber of stimulus and will not receive new information to broaden our mental capabilities. If we spend time in nature surrounded by structures and patterns that are born of unfathomably complex and foreign processes, then our minds can assimilate this new content into its existing understanding of reality.

Basically, if you spend your days in a white cube (i.e. a house) then your mental framework will be limited to the creative potential that a white cube suggests. If, however, you spend your days in an ever-changing fractal world of colours and shapes (i.e. natural environments) then your mind will reflect this, and adopt an expanded creative potential in order to perceive and understand its surroundings. This is a powerful reality; understanding how our connection with nature nourishes our minds is where spirituality meets both science and intuition.

What benefits does nature offer?

Perhaps the most important and relevant aspect of an active lifestyle in nature is its ability to reduce stress. Studies have shown that taking a walk in a park could decrease stressful thoughts, and even reduce blood pressure (Bush, et al., 2016; Robins, 2020). This finding demonstrates that simply being exposed to nature can decrease stress levels, and implies that returning to nature may be an effective way of keeping our mental health at its best. And here’s the kicker: any amount of time spent in nature is net-gain for your mental wellbeing (Robins, 2020). There is no threshold or minimum a dosage of nature that will have an effect on you – even just spending a short time sitting in your backyard enjoying nature will likely have a positive impact on your mental health.

Other studies have also shown that exposure to nature has an effect on our emotional outlook; particularly in regards to relieving us from pessimistic and fearful thinking (Lefebvre & Brucker, 2018). Life in the modern world is full of consequential decisions and options, the outcomes of which can dictate the quality of your entire life. Decision making is one of the more neurologically complex and taxing processes that our brains undertake, and research has shown that we make 35,000 choices per day (Huston, 2018).

This process involves assessing each option for its individual merit, sorting each option into a hierarchy in relation to every other option, making predictions about every possible positive and negative outcome of each option, and then weighing each outcome against that of every other option; golly, how exhausting! The fear and pessimism arises because each option invariably comes with the potential for myriad negative outcomes, and we are constantly coerced into assessing these. Thankfully, nature offers respite from all this noise. Spending time in nature relieves us from overthinking by presenting us with very few options, each with relatively inconsequential outcomes; ‘where will I sit while I drink from my water bottle?’ or ‘should I take the path leading towards the lookout, or the waterfall?’ are not taxing decisions to make, and will not prompt fearful or pessimistic thought patterns. There is an easiness to natural environments in which things seem to flow along their own course, and we are able to simply jump into the stream and flow along with it.

Aside from experiential benefits, time in nature can help us orient ourselves in the world in more grounded and productive ways. In today’s society, our attentional abilities are sapped by large corporations who profit from our distractibility, and it seems as though a way to remedy this mental breach is routine contact with nature. Attentional abilities are bolstered by spending time in nature (Ebata & Izenstark, 2017), making you less susceptible to the temptations of modernity (i.e. problematic social media scrolling, binging streaming services, etc).

Thus, making time in nature a priority in our lives – especially when we do not even feel stressed or anxious – can help us orient ourselves to the world around us and find a sense of personal empowerment. Taking time to be immersed in nature can help us regain confidence, ground us in a personal sense of meaning, and re-establish our wellbeing. Being in nature is correlated with increased positive emotions and feelings of control over one’s life (Chowdhurry, 2021), so even if we do not believe we need some sort of mental intervention, the benefits are there for everybody to experience.

How can I fit more nature-time into my life?

For the most part, we only need to reflect on our daily behaviours to see how we can incorporate time in nature into our lives. James Clear, in his wildly popular book Atomic Habits (2018), suggests incorporating a “budding habit” into an existing habit.

So for instance, if you have a lunch break during the work day, you could spend it outside on a park bench instead of in the staff room. If you come home at the end of the day and like to sit on the couch with a book, go outside and sit on the grass instead. These are simply ways to adopt more nature-time into your life, without having to add another separate activity to your schedule. In a 2017 study (Austin, et al., 2017), some participants were asked to take a brief walk in nature once per day, and other participants weren’t. The results showed that those who walked daily had higher levels of positive emotions and well-being than those who walked less. It doesn’t take a lot of time to nourish our minds in the deep ways that only nature offers us, and it seems to be a worthwhile habit to form.

Making the time to experience nature is easy to ignore in lieu of more ‘important’ tasks. That walk in the park you planned on taking this afternoon suddenly seems overshadowed by a looming deadline or a sink full of dirty dishes. For this reason, it can be beneficial to keep yourself accountable by planning nature-time with other people. Planning to go for a walk with friends means there is a lower likelihood of cancelling. Better yet, if you can join a weekly community group or class of some sort then you won’t even have to continually plan your time in nature.

There are volunteer groups who aid revegetation in nature reserves, there are community gardens who need people to tend to plants and crops, and there are clean up groups who dispose of discarded rubbish in bush-lands. If volunteering isn’t appealing to you, then you could change your routine by canceling your gym membership in lieu of outdoor exercise classes or yoga, or even new activities like cycling or rowing. Making scheduled appointments to spend time in nature can assist those who have trouble achieving this with sheer willpower, and your mental health will thank you for it.

Our acknowledgment of the value of time spent in nature is growing each day, which is why more urban living environments are incorporating ‘green spaces’ into their design. Using the latest neuroscience research, we are able to determine which types of natural environments compliments our mental states the most effectively. For example, it has been found that areas with high levels of biodiversity can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depressions more-so than those with low levels of biodiversity (Wyles, et al., 2019). Similarly, people who watched videos featuring a diverse array of flora and fauna reported lower anxiety and higher vitality than those who watched videos of less biodiverse landscapes (Wolf, et al., 2017).

Findings like these offer valuable insight into how we can engineer our surroundings to best facilitate the highest levels of wellbeing possible. It is clear that spending time in nature is invaluable for our mental health, but a half-hour lunch break doesn’t give us time to go hiking through a biodiverse mountain landscape; what we can do, however, is have access to green spaces which replicate the stimulus that we would receive if we were in nature. This has proven to be an eloquent solution to the pressing issue of depression rates in urban CBD areas (Ebata & Izenstark, 2017).

Summary

In conclusion, the role of nature in our lives is of paramount importance to our health and should be a priority for us all. Although it may feel like adding a daily walk outside to our schedules would be in futility, the positive mental health benefits outweigh the costs significantly. Making time in nature a priority, no matter how little, can greatly increase our overall sense of wellbeing, and remind us that we are interconnected to the living world around us.

There is no minimum threshold required to reap the benefits of nature, so we can all find a way to capitalise on just a little bit of time in natural environments. As a species, it is our natural disposition to enjoy the outdoors, and the benefits are more abundant than you might expect. So pop on a pair of joggers, Google search ‘hikes near me’, phone a friend, and get out there amongst the fresh air; you can thank us later!

References:

  1. Berman, M. G., Kross, E., Krpan, K. M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., . . . Jonides, J. (2012, November). Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Retrieved from: Website.
  2. Bush, R., Dean, J., Lin, B., & Fuller, R. (2016). Health Benefits from Nature Experiences Depend on Dose. Scientific Reports.
  3. Chowdhury, M. (2021, February 19). The Positive Effects Of Nature On Your Mental Well-Being. Retrieved from: Website.
  4. Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones. London: RH Business Books.
  5. Hunter, M. R., Gillespie, B. W., & Chen, S. Y. (2019, March 15). Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Retrieved from: Website.
  6. Huston, M. (2018). How Many Decisions Do We Make Each Day? Retrieved from: Website.
  7. Izenstark, D., & Ebata, A. (2017). The Effects of the Natural Environment on Attention and Family Cohesion: An Experimental Study. Children, Youth, and Environments.
  8. Wyles, K. J., White, M. P., Hattam, C., Pahl, S., King, H., & Austen, M. (2017). Are Some Natural Environments More Psychologically Beneficial Than Others? The Importance of Type and Quality on Connectedness to Nature and Psychological Restoration. Environment and Behavior, 51(2), 111-143. doi:10.1177/0013916517738312

What does human development mean to you? How often are we thinking about our own development? Here is a start (“,)What does human development mean to you? How often are we thinking about our own development? Here is a start (“,)

Hello readers. I hope you are well. I imagine some of you are struggling and some of you are flourishing. Life consists of both. As humans, we relish pleasurable feelings and experiences and we tend to dislike uncomfortable emotions and experiences. I get it. I am just like you. We share this. I hope that provides some comfort.

What is human development?

Human development can be described as “systematic changes and continuities in the individual that occur between conception and death, or from “womb to tomb”” (Sigelman, De George, Cunial, & Rider, 2019, p. 3).

Human development involves the continuities (i.e., what remains consistent across time) and the systematic changes (i.e., patterns of change that are expected to come in order across time) that one experiences throughout the lifespan. Based on my education, there are three domains of continuity and change: 1. The physical and biological, 2. Cognitive (i.e., mind processes/thinking), and 3. Psychosocial and emotional. Let’s open these one at a time.

Physical development includes:

  • Physical and biological processes (e.g., genetic inheritance).
  • Growth of the body and its organs.
  • Functioning of physiological systems (e.g., brain).
  • Health and wellness.
  • Physical signs of ageing and changes in motor abilities.

Cognitive development includes:


Perception: the sensing of stimuli in our environment (internal and external), sending that information to the brain to be identified and interpreted in order to represent and understand our experience of the world and give it meaning. All perception involves signals that go through the nervous system.

Attention: the ability to actively (and often, involuntarily) process specific information in the environment while tuning out other details. Attention is a very interesting cognitive process because when we bring mindfulness to our thoughts we become open to the direction and attention of our mind. Remember this: where attention goes, energy flows.

Language: very broadly, Language is a communication system that involves using words (i.e., sounds arranged together) and systematic rules to organise those words into sentences and meaning, to transmit information from one individual to another. I was never very interested in language when I was studying at university however that has changed. We used language and concepts to talk to ourselves, about other people, and it is open to misinterpretation, error, and oftentimes language can be used as a means to hurt people or … bring us closer together.

Learning: very broadly defined as a relatively permanent change in behaviour, thinking, and understanding as a result of experience. Experience is everything from formal education to unique personal experience. We learn from each other, the world around us, books, movies, self-reflection and education etc. All of which are experiences.

Memory: Memory refers to the processes that are used to gather, organise, store, retain, and later retrieve information. I’m sure you’ve all seen a tv show or read a book about a person with Amnesia or Alzheimer’s disease. Imagine what your life would be like if you didn’t have the function of memory. I wouldn’t be able to type this very well, I don’t think. I wouldn’t remember my loved ones or what was dangerous in my environment. I know we all have unpleasant memories too and that may feel like a negative evolutionary by-product – however it is actually designed to protect us. Memory is finite – we actually forget a lot of stuff, or perhaps more accurately, we do not have the capacity to store and recall everything we experience.

Intelligence: I would like to reframe intelligence from what might be a common belief. Intelligence does not mean academically gifted as is considered valuable in Western society. I think Olympians and caregivers/parents have an intelligence that I do not because I haven’t learned their skills. Intelligence involves the ability to learn (i.e., sport, academics, the arts, swimming, survival, interpersonal skills), emotional knowledge, creativity, and adaptation to meet the demands of the environment effectively

Creativity: I consider creativity to be an evolutionary gift of our imagination, providing humans with the ability to generate and recognize ideas, consider alternatives, think of possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. Creativity can be stunted when we are struggling or caught in reactivity to external pressures or perceived stress.

Problem solving: is a process – yes, a cognitive one but also a behavioural process. It is the act of defining a problem; determining the cause of the problem; identifying, prioritizing, and selecting alternatives for a solution; and implementing a solution. Problem solving can be both creative or stress driven. I like to say whenever I am solving a problem I am also making a decision. A decision of mine is a choice. At university, our problem solving lessons were coincided with decision making which is why I think of it that way.

Psychosocial development involves:

Aspects of the self (i.e., your identity – which may change over time), and social and interpersonal interactions which include motives, emotions, personality traits, morality, social skills, and relationships, and roles played in the family and in the larger society. This is a huge area to be explored. I will endeavour to elaborate on our psychosocial development in later blogs.

In the late 1950’s, a German-American developmental psychologist named Erik Erikson created a theory for human psychosocial development across the lifespan. His theory suggests that human personality develops in a predetermined order through 8 stages of psychosocial development. See the table below:

Age or StageConflictExampleResolution or “virtue”Key Question to be answered
Infancy (0 to 18 months)Trust vs. MistrustBeing feed and cared for by caregiver.HopeIs my world safe? Will I be cared for?
Early Childhood (2 to 3 years)Autonomy (personal control) vs. Shame and DoubtToilet training and getting dressed.Will I would add self-efficacy here too.Can I do things for myself, or will I always rely on others?
Preschool (3 to 5 years)Initiative vs. GuiltInteracting with other children and asserting themselves in their environment e.g., during play.Purpose Taking initiative, leading others, asserting ideas produces a sense of purpose.Am I liked by others or do I experience disapproval by others?
School Age (6 to 11 years)Industry (competence) vs. InferiorityStarting formal education and participating in activities.CompetenceHow can I do well and be accepted by others?
Adolescence (12 to 18 years)Identity vs. Role Confusion (uncertainty of self and role in society)Developing social relationships with peers and sense of identity.Fidelity (loyalty) The ability to maintain loyalty to others based on accepting others despite differences.Who am I and where am I going in my life? What are my personal beliefs, values and goals?
Young Adult (19 to 40 years)Intimacy vs. IsolationDeveloping intimate relationships.LoveAm I loved and desired by another? Will I be loved long-term?
Mature Adult (40 to 65 years)Generativity vs. StagnationVocation and parenting, typically.Care Contributing to the world to demonstrate that you care.Will I provide something to this world of real value? E.g., children or valuable work, art, a legacy etc.
Maturity (65 year to death)Ego Identity vs. DespairReflection of your life. Feelings of satisfaction and wholeness.WisdomWas I productive with my life? Can I accept my life and have a sense of closure and completeness?

Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors. (2021). Finding Meaning: Masculinity in Crisis (Issue 358 // Institute Inbrief). Retrieved from https://mailchi.mp/aipc/institute-inbrief-179116?e=5e8ce9018dAustralian Institute of Professional Counsellors. (2021). Finding Meaning: Masculinity in Crisis (Issue 358 // Institute Inbrief). Retrieved from https://mailchi.mp/aipc/institute-inbrief-179116?e=5e8ce9018d

Finding Meaning: Masculinity in Crisis


Many young men seek counselling because they feel lost (Seidler, et al., 2016). This happens especially in today’s world, where the boundaries of how a man is supposed to behave are shifting rapidly. It’s a difficult time for young men to find their place in life as they struggle to adapt themselves to changing social attitudes and norms; there’s plenty of content in the media illuminating harmful male behaviours, but there isn’t a legitimate mainstream discussion of how masculinity ought to be propagated. As a result, many young men are growing into adulthood without a map – they lack a male voice of compassion and authority to guide them on how to integrate masculinity into their lives.

In our writer’s experience, men who have been referred for counselling often have a very strong underlying sense of purpose and a desire to be good people; their anxiety, depression, and harmful behaviours are often symptoms of feeling unable to actualise their potential. It’s a counsellor’s job to help men articulate this sense of purpose in constructive and positive ways, and offer guidance on enacting their perceived purpose effectively. 

A study from the University of Connecticut has identified three major factors that determine whether men believe their lives are meaningful (George & Park, 2016):

  1. They feel that their lives make sense, and have continuity
  2. They are directed and motivated by meaningful goals
  3. They believe their existence matters to others

Researchers discovered that sources of meaning tend to fall into two main categories: meaningful relationships and a meaningful profession (George & Park, 2016).

There is no doubt that this generation of males is developing a unique relationship with masculinity, and it’s not necessarily for the betterment of their relationships or professions (Black & Westwood, 2012); men’s desire for professional success can be interpreted as a validation of the patriarchal system, while their pursuit of romantic relationships can be perceived as misogynistic (LeanIn, 2019). While some men are certainly exploiting systems which privilege them, often times the prevalence of this attitude discourages “good” men from progressing and developing themselves (Hoff, 2016). This article is not making a stance on any social/political issues: it is merely articulating some causes and concepts that can assist counsellors in understanding this very nuanced issue, so they can help men find meaning in the modern world.

What even is masculinity?

Masculinity and femininity denote sets of attributes that most people can intuitively identify – for example, it doesn’t take a discerning anthropologist to tell the girls section of the toy store apart from the boys section. But regardless of the value of this distinction, what exactly is the nature of it? Defining masculinity and femininity is a little more nuanced than simply referring to their apparent differences; not all people have the same understanding of what masculinity and femininity are, and how they manifest themselves. For example, conceptualisations of masculinity and femininity vary vastly across cultures and historical periods (Reeser, 2010); as such, there can be confusion about what these terms mean, and how we can embody them effectively.

Across time, however, typically agreed-upon standards for masculine conduct involve strength, courage, and leadership (Kimmel, 1994); these traits reflect a desire for meaning – you only inhabit strength and courage when a compelling reason to do so arises. Young men today, knowingly or not, are crying out for responsibilities that offer this type of meaning in their lives (Frankl, 2006). They want to know what it means to be who they are in the world right now – what can they do, and how can they best live? It’s time that we help them find the answers to these questions.

Currently, there is a lot of heated discussion about whether masculinity – or any kind of gender categorisation – is a genuine natural occurrence, or a mere social construction that we can/should dispose of; the question of whether masculinity is inherent in biology or if it arises through socialisation has been debated for hundreds of years (Martin & Finn, 2010). This is a question that does not have a black-and-white answer; studies on prenatal androgen exposure – among other developmental events – have shown biological links to expressions of masculine or feminine traits (Martin & Finn, 2010), however, it can be argued that these differences are exaggerated and articulated further by social influences (Wharton, 2012).

Whichever perspective you align with, an often unacknowledged aspect of these conversations is that while some forms of masculinity are harmful, some are also powerful forces for good. It’s possible (and advised) for men to have a productive and integrated expression of their masculinity (Jung, 2009) – one that allows them to use their strengths to achieve fulfilment. Unfortunately, the current culture is lacking in content which identifies what these strengths are, and thus fails to encourage men to embody them; as detailed above, many young men feel lost because of this.

It should also be stated that masculine traits are not exclusive to men; masculinity and femininity are not synonymous concepts to gender or sexual identity (Butler, 2006). That being said, this article is specifically addressing the mental health of men with masculine attributes. 

Why is masculinity in crisis?

There are a variety of reasons why young men feel uncertain about how to navigate the contemporary world. These include, but are not limited to, the following 3 observations:

1) The increasing separation between traditional male roles and the reality of modern life

The roles of men in the traditional household and workplace are changing. Men are becoming more inclined to be actively involved in child-rearing and housework. However, there is still often an expectation for them to maintain the traditional breadwinner role (Martin & Gnoth, 2009). Men are finding themselves stuck in limbo between the past and the future. Discerning one’s purpose thus becomes difficult, leading to feelings of emptiness (Rogers, 2010); men without a  defined mission will generally find themselves feeling a tremendous sense of lack (Deida, 1997). In this day and age, young men are extremely worried about what they will do after college, and the answer is likely “Go overseas for a few years, then come back.” This reflects a lack of encouragement to make powerful decisions towards meaningful futures.

2) A lack of positive masculine role models in society

For many children, fathers are either absent or not present enough, and this has lasting impacts on the way males view themselves and their sense of meaning/purpose in the world (Single Mother Guide, 2012). Men who grow up without an emotionally involved father has been correlated with long term effects including increased likelihood of dropping out of high school or college, and increased likelihood of substance abuse (McLanahan, Tach, & Schneider, 2014). These problems are exacerbated by the fact that many young men are searching for their place in the world and attempting to figure out what it means to be a man in today’s society – there is not always an adult male figure for them to look up to. 

The men who are often placed in the media limelight are there by way of some transgression or moral failing. While the modern world is rightly campaigning for positive representations of identities in media, it seems as though this effort circumvents men (Tarrant, et al., 2015). It is understood that men have historically tended to see themselves in positions of power and dominance, but this is not a reason to avoid exposing men to genuinely positive role-models in our current time. It is to the detriment of the mental health of many young men that we do not see more positive representations of masculinity (Tarrant, et al., 2015); ones that represent the compassionate and purposeful core of the masculine ideal.

3) Social media content either teaches men harmful ways of interacting with others, or degrades the concept of masculinity in general

The following two types of social media content are tough for today’s men to navigate. Firstly, there is a large online community of content creators calling for men to be ruthlessly successful; young men are bombarded with images of ‘alpha-males’ and are expected to adopt this image into their own definitions of masculinity. This makes it more difficult for boys to embrace their sensitive sides, leading to a lack of emotional literacy (Stratford, 2020). Content creators rarely offer antidotes to this effect, and are failing to provide helpful insights into the psychological reality of becoming a good man with a meaningful life. These online figures often try to convey an image that their life is perfect, when in fact this is often far from the truth; men are being encouraged to strive for false images of fulfilment (Stratford, 2020). This is a major concern for both men and women. 

Secondly, while some men are being plagued by the alpha-male image, others are being exposed to content that degrades masculinity in general. The conduct of certain men has been the object of fair scrutiny over recent years, and there are arguments to be made for how this conduct has been an expression of masculinity. There is, however, no grounds for suggesting that masculinity in general is problematic. This view has created a culture in which masculinity is demonised; while this might be a perceived course-of-action for eradicating its more toxic forms, the more immediate effect is that good men are feeling alienated and ineffectual (Rogers, 2010). Rather than encouraging men to be better, we are constantly reminding them that they are harmful; a result of this is a generation of men who are unmotivated and aimless (Salter, 2019). A study has found that male respondents who have experienced gender-based cyberbullying feel compromised in how they feel they are permitted to exist in society (Chen, et al., 2015). Men are seen as less attractive and less desirable to women when they post images of themselves on their Instagram account, as it is seen as the promotion of male dominance rather than a harmless expression of an individual (Fox & Rooney, 2015). This phenomenon leads to a significant decrease in men’s self-esteem, which results in paralysis and stagnation in their professions and relationships.

So, how can counsellors help men find purpose and meaning?

As counsellors, we can offer strategies to help men identify and organise the meaningful facets of their lives. Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, created logotherapy, which is based on the presumption that a man’s main motivation is to find meaning in life, as opposed to the pursuit of pleasure or power (Marshall & Marshall, 2012). Some techniques he used were dereflection (focusing on high-level goals instead of on themselves) and Socratic dialogue (open-ended questions to uncover dormant aspirations). If, for example, a client is passionate about saving the environment, this type of therapy can assist them in finding a practical way to focus their time and efforts on realising their potential in doing so.

Meaning therapy (Wong, 2010) incorporates aspects of cognitive-behavioural therapy and positive psychology, and helps people take on more meaningful responsibilities in their lives while encouraging them to pursue goals that serve others. It advocates psycho-educational approaches that equip men with the mental toolkit necessary to create a vision of an idealised future for them to begin moving towards.

Similarly, self-authoring is a process by which people organise their lives into a narrative structure, making their past, present, and desired futures more easily understandable (Peterson, 2005). By creating a map of one’s life, it can become far simpler to identify who you are, what you value, and what you need to do to be of most service to yourself and your community. As with most approaches that attend to creating meaning, it is based on reflection and awareness. 

A culture of masculine content creation must be encouraged to counter the fear of being construed as ‘too emotional’, or ‘not manly enough’. It’s time we begin working together to help young men find meaning, and develop a culture which is focused on stopping the cycles of toxic masculinity, whilst encouraging healthy expressions of masculinity in its stead.

In summary… 

Young men today are having a difficult time finding their place in the world. The current cultural climate surrounding masculinity – as well as the absence of positive role-models for younger generations – is leading to a decrease in the quality of mental health. Men must be taught how to integrate their masculine dispositions into their lives; how to lead, how to care, and how to love with purpose and commitment. There is an urgent need for discussion to take place around what masculinity means, and how we can encourage healthy expressions of it; it is my hope that this article has encouraged us all to begin engaging with this conversation. 

Recommended Links: Men In Mind Program (by Movember), Men and Emotions: From Repression to Expression (Article), Men, Emotions and Alexithymia (Article)

References:

  1. Butler, Judith (2006) [1990]. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York London: Routledge. 
  2. Cunningham, C. E., Chen, Y., Vaillancourt, T., Rimas, H., Deal, K., Cunningham, L. J., & Ratcliffe, J. (2014). Modeling the anti‐cyberbullying preferences of university students: Adaptive choice‐based conjoint analysis. Retrieved from webpage.
  3. Deida, D. (1997). The Way of the Superior Man. S.I.: Sounds True.
  4. Fox, J., Rooney, M. (2015) The Dark Triad and trait self-objectification as predictors of men’s use and self-presentation behaviors on social networking sites. Personality and Individual Differences
  5. Frankl, V. E., Kushner, H. S., & Winslade, W. J. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
  6. Hoff, C. (2016). Five Ways Patriarchy Affects Men and their Relationships. Retrieved from webpage.
  7. Jung, C. G., Shamdasani, S., & Hoerni, U. (2009). The red book = Liber novus: A readers edition. New York: W.W. Norton &.
  8. Kimmel, Michael S. (1994). “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity”. Theorizing Masculinities. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc. pp. 119–141. 
  9. LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey survey (2019)
  10. Maria Marshall; Edward Marshall (2012). Logotherapy Revisited: Review of the Tenets of Viktor E. Frankl’s Logotherapy. Ottawa: Ottawa Institute of Logotherapy. 
  11. Martin, Brett A.S.; Gnoth, Juergen (2009). “Is the Marlboro man the only alternative? The role of gender identity and self-construal salience in evaluations of male models”. Marketing Letters. 20 (4): 353–367. 
  12. Martin, Hale; Finn, Stephen E. (2010). Masculinity and Femininity in the MMPI-2 and MMPI-A. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 5–13. 
  13. McLanahan, S., Tach, L., & Schneider, D. (2013). The Causal Effects of Father Absence. Retrieved from webpage.
  14. Peterson, J. (2005). Self Authoring. Retrieved from https://www.selfauthoring.com/
  15. Reeser, Todd W. (2010). Masculinities in theory: an introduction. Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell. 
  16. Rogers, Thomas (November 14, 2010). “The dramatic decline of the modern man”. Salon.
  17. Salter, Michael (2019). “The Problem With a Fight Against Toxic Masculinity”. The Atlantic. 
  18. “Single Mother Statistics”. Single Mother Guide. (2012)
  19. Seidler Z. E., Dawes A.J., Rice S. M., Oliffe J. L., Dhillon H. M. (2016). The role of masculinity in men’s help-seeking for depression: A systematic review. Retrieved from webpage.
  20. Stratford, H. (2020). ‘Be a man’ – toxic masculinity, social media and violence: Innovation Unit: Creating impact – reducing inequalities – transforming systems. Retrieved from webpage.
  21. Tarrant, A., Terry, G., Ward, M., Are Male Role Models Really the Solution? Interrogating the ‘War on Boys’ Through the Lens of the ‘Male Role Model’ Discourse. (2015). Retrieved from webpage.
  22. Westwood, M. J., & Black, T. G. (2012). Introduction to the Special Issue of the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy. Retrieved from webpage.
  23. Wharton, Amy S. (2012). The Sociology of Gender, second edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
  24. Wong, P. T. (2009). Meaning Therapy: An Integrative and Positive Existential Psychotherapy. Retrieved from webpage.

Building Shame Resilience (2018). AIPC Article Library. Retrieved July 25, 2021 from https://www.aipc.net.au/articles/building-shame-resilience-in-clients/Building Shame Resilience (2018). AIPC Article Library. Retrieved July 25, 2021 from https://www.aipc.net.au/articles/building-shame-resilience-in-clients/

Jungian analysts have called it the “swampland of the soul”. Other psychotherapy writers have observed how it originally served to keep us safe; the tendency to shame has been a universal one in which our desire to hide our flaws from others has saved us from being kicked out of the group (the society), which evolutionarily would have meant death (Sholl, 2013). So which is it? Is shame totally pathological, or is it ever helpful to us? And how shall we deal with it in the therapy session, especially when we are faced with a highly self-critical or otherwise shame-prone client?

In a recent blog post we defined shame and provided examples of it, differentiating it from similar emotions. In this follow-up article, we identify the signs and symptoms that a client is experiencing shame, review the dynamics and states of mind relevant to it, and explore ways to build shame resilience – a capacity to deal with potentially shame-triggering incidents – in clients.

How you can identify it in the therapy room

First, let’s make sure that you are, indeed, able to spot this elusive and dark emotion. As we noted in the earlier piece, the salient characteristic of shame is that, paradoxically, it is hidden. People can experience a deep-seated shame for years that even close associates do not recognise. So how, on perhaps only a few minutes of therapeutic association, do we? The first complication of many on this topic is that shame is ubiquitous in the therapy room. This is true for three reasons: (1) nearly all clients will be experiencing some form of it; (2) clients are also likely to feel shamed merely because of the stigma associated with seeking mental health help; and (3) finally, we as therapists must acknowledge that we have our own places of shame, which in the exchange of transferences that is psychotherapy, inevitably manifest in our interactions with clients.

Physical and emotional symptoms of shame

Dearing and Tangney (2011), in drawing together the threads of multiple master clinicians’ observations on the topic, noted that therapists consistently commented on the physical and/or emotional withdrawal of clients experiencing shame. This could be seen in decreased eye contact, slumped or rigid posture, avoidance of “here and now” material, freezing, stammering, tightened voice, self-deprecating comments possibly expanding into hilarious monologues, and a micro-flash of irritation before apology for missing a session or failing to do an assigned homework. Downcast eyes, squirming in the seat, laughter covering embarrassment, and indications that a topic is somehow degrading were all nominated as signs of shame. Some therapists noted that their shamed clients tended to go blank; manifest submissive, crouched body postures; avoid topics (as in talking “around” them); become anxious or angry; or directly refuse to divulge relevant clinical material (Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

The “hidden” demonstrations of shame

As obvious as the above signs would seem to be, a common observation is that shame is easily overlooked in the therapy room. It is an emotion that clients wish to hide because they feel ashamed of having shame, and we as therapists may collude with that, partly because of our own areas of felt shame. Beyond that, though, client shame is frequently disguised by other emotions: anger and rage, envy, contempt, and expressions of grandiosity, as clients “wear” several subtypes of narcissism in order to hide their vulnerable, shamed self. Paralinguistic cues can include confusion of thought, hesitation, soft speech, mumbling, silence, long pauses, rapid speech, or tensely laughed words. Therapists not trained to recognise it can easily miss these many, more hidden, faces of shame (Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

Shame-related states of mind in session

When in a typical shameful state of mind, an individual has a sense of an exposed, vulnerable, devalued self being scrutinised and found wanting in the eyes of a devaluing other. Acute shame may be experienced as an overwhelming pang of secret discomfort associated with communication that explicitly or implicitly conveys themes of inferiority. Extremely shame-prone clients suffer from persistent, oppressive appraisal processes in which all interactions (including those with you in session) are rigidly assessed in accord with the degree of perceived criticism, judgment, or humiliation experienced. This has been likened to a computer application program which, whether running inconspicuously in the background or more saliently in the foreground, is nevertheless always present at any given moment, never completely disengaged. It can be triggered into the foreground (primary operation) by myriad interpersonal events or by internal processes such as memories, fantasies, and reactions to internal states of arousal, such as sexual excitement, rage, or even exhibitionistic urges (Zaslav, 1998).

The defences a client chooses to engage as a result of the shame may vary widely. Narcissistic clients, for example, may ward off shameful schemas about self through grandiose, inflated self-regard in the (imagined) presence of an admiring audience. But upon perceiving a lack of sufficient support or attention from the psychotherapist, the same narcissist may experience other shame-related states, such as painful emptiness or of being a “nothing”. Volatile expressions of anger can result for shame-prone clients experiencing bitter, resentful feelings of being unappreciated or even humiliated; these the client may perceive as “self-righteous rage”. Others defend against shame through paranoid states in which others are seen as tormenting or accusing the self. For still other clients, envious states or episodes of blaming self or others manifest. How can you as therapist discern these states of mind? Zaslav (1998) suggests that psychotherapists are apt to enter complementary states of mind in which shame-related themes dominate. Thus, tapping into your own feelings in the moment will provide important clues to the client’s state of mind. Note that the client may present their guilty self (guilt being an often adaptive emotion in which we experience doing something bad rather than being bad), but a shamed self is not likely to appear directly, as clients go to frantic lengths to avoid experiencing it; by its nature, it is hidden even from the client (Zaslav, 1998).

Finally, upon entering a shameful state, many clients experience a transient inability to think, referred to as “cognitive shock” (Zaslav, 1998). Thus, while a psychotherapy session may work well for guilt, which can be expressed, processed, and expiated, the sense of vulnerability and exposure that goes with shame is almost always accompanied by a direct avoidance of communication about it, and this is compounded by states including disruptive imagery, cognitive disorganisation, and emotional dysregulation (Zaslav, 1998). All of this can trigger behaviour which conflicts with any prosocial, adaptive functions of shame (such as helping an individual to find his or her place in society), and instead leads the person to cut empathic ties to others.

Shame is rich in transferences

Along with all of this comes the challenge that shame – especially because it is so difficult for people to confront directly in themselves – is often repressed and thus projected outward, to the therapist and others. Much has been written about this aspect which is beyond the scope of this article, but note that, given the painful split between the devalued self and a devaluing other, defensive operations within the client are likely to result in the shame experience being projected onto or into the therapist (in projection and projective identification, respectively). This means that you as therapist may be made to feel about yourself as the client feels about him/herself. How do you know this is happening? Again, the information is located conveniently in your own body/emotions, when you begin to notice shifts in your own self-evaluation. You become, in essence, the “spokesperson” for the client’s poor self-esteem. The client may project inadequacy onto you, systematically and unconsciously undermining and devaluing your efforts, until you begin to doubt your own adequacy as a therapist. Feelings of weakness or deficiency are common in shame-based projections. Similarly, the client may reveal contemptuous or devaluing attitudes toward the therapist that can be linked in treatment to a disowned weak or defective self superimposed upon the psychotherapist. If this happens to you and you are able to tolerate the projections openly – without corresponding shameful retreat, you provide a powerful message to the client that it is safe to examine his or her internalisation of a devalued, incompetent self (Zaslav, 1998).

Finally, we note that a different form of transference/countertransference can occur when the client unconsciously pressures you as therapist to accept a disapproving stance toward him/her. In this case you function as a spokesperson for the client’s self-contempt. Once you understand this, it is easier to maintain a supportive stance, while encouraging exploration of those self-critical attitudes that the client generally puts onto him/herself (Zaslav, 1998).

Enhancing shame resilience in the therapy room

Dearing and Tangney (2011) integrate their master clinicians’ suggestions for how to work with shame in the therapy room through a framework with four aspects: accessing and acknowledging shame, relational validation, shame regulation, and transformation of shame. We look through that framework into suggestions we have unearthed for building shame resilience.

Accessing and acknowledging shame

Numerous authors make the point that shame draws much of its power from the shadows; when we bring it into the light of shared discussion, we disempower it. The saying is apt here that emotions (and shame is one of the darkest and most intense of emotions) are like breathing: they only cause trouble when obstructed (Sack, 2015). Thus, getting beyond shame means being able to share experiences of shame with trusted others. It means exposure to shame. We have emphasised throughout this article and the earlier one that people acting from shame-based instincts uniformly want to avoid looking at it, let alone talking about it. But deal with it they must; exposure to it can be like the graded exposure techniques used with individuals experiencing panic attacks and other forms of anxiety: first a little exposure to it, then gradually increasing amounts (LeJeune, 2016).

It is useful for clients to be able to recognise their triggers. Shame is sneaky; it attacks us where we are most vulnerable, or in other words, our insecurities “prime” us to feel shame in particular areas. The aspiring writer with the freshly-minted novel is more apt to feel shamed when someone points out how compelling another novelist is than when comments are made about someone else’s car. The overweight person who hears how beautiful another (very slender) person is may take that as a hint that he or she should lose the excess weight. Research suggests that a chief shame trigger for women is physical appearance, whereas for men it is the fear of being perceived as weak (Sack, 2015).

In therapy, the mere process of naming shame helps to differentiate it from similar emotions (such as humiliation, guilt, or embarrassment) and also can help the client to normalise it (i.e., pointing out that it is a universal human experience; we all have it at one time or another). The point is to “titrate the dose” of shame-naming so that the client is not overwhelmed, but confronts it little by little as he or she is ready to accept it. As this process occurs, the client comes to see that few, if any, experiences warrant the global “smearing” of the whole personality with the tar-brush that created the global negative self-attributions. Rather, in the logical light of day, most genuine flaws, setbacks, and transgressions are limited to particular areas – and the client can either resolve them or choose to view them more kindly (Dearing & Tangney, 2011; LeJeune, 2016).

Relational validation

Talking about the shame, as above – or rather, being heard around it – is a form of relational validation as well as a way of accessing shame. Empathy is the antidote to shame, so receiving it when telling a shame-generating story can help dissolve it. Especially because of the hidden nature of shame, we can tend to feel isolated in it. Authentic sharing – with vulnerability, to someone who responds empathetically – can build the therapeutic alliance in a therapy session, or strengthen a relationship outside of it. Yes, it can be anxiety-inducing to do this with high shame. As a therapist, note that many psychotherapy writers suggest that you actually use the term “shame”, but you may wish to wait until some relationship is built before using that word (Sholl, 2013; Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

Shame regulation

Along these lines, whatever you can do to help build self-compassion in the client makes it easier for the person to self-soothe, self-validate and regulate the shame. Thus, not only your words, but the timbre, pacing, and tone of your voice – how you say what you say – may influence clients cued to experience threat or disapproval. LeJeune’s research (2016) suggests that even engendering a sense of physical warmth in the therapy room (via a cup of tea, a blanket, or a cosy office) may induce a client to greater compassion for self and therefore greater capacity to self-regulate the shame.

Certainly, psychoeducation and guiding clients in experiences of loving-kindness (Metta) meditation and practices of mindful non-judgment are shown to positively impact a whole host of difficulties related to shame. One technique is to locate where the sensation of shame manifests in the body; let’s say it’s in the pit of the client’s stomach. The client then places a hand over that area (or alternatively, over the heart) and directs comforting, affirming energy to that part of the body. When a client has enhanced self-compassion, it makes it easier to be vulnerable and engage the world from a place of worthiness, thus regulating shame, so it is a full feedback loop (Sholl, 2013).
Tied to helping the client regulate his or her shame is the capacity in us as therapists to be able to recognise and then normalise our own places of shame. Let us say this strongly: it is normal to feel shame as a therapist! We spoke before about shame being put onto or into us by the client via projection or projective identification. Beyond that, we are human, too, and may experience shame from previous experiences completely unrelated to the client. LeJeune’s Number One scientifically-based recommendation for dealing with shame is to “Love your own self-doubt; it makes you a better therapist” (2016). At least, being aware of our own shame and learning about it can help us to model self-compassion and eventual shame regulation for our clients (LeJeune, 2016; Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

Transformation of shame

Finally, we come to the question of how we can change a problematic emotional experience – that of shame – into a more adaptive, empowering, and meaningful emotion that can serve as a resource. One powerful way is to transform shame into guilt. We have differentiated between shame (“I am bad”) and guilt (“I have done something bad”). If we are inherently wrong or bad, there is no hope. But if we have done something wrong, we have the opportunity to make reparation: to apologise, to compensate, to redress whatever wrong we have somehow done. Sometimes it is only necessary to educate clients as to the difference between “being bad” and “doing bad”. Some forms of treatment already support this transformation. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, encourages members to separate character flaws from their core selves (Step 4) and make amends for what they have done wrong during their addictions (Steps 8 and 9), thus moving from shame to guilt. Taking this step is at least implicit, if not explicit, in therapies such as CBT and REBT. Many success-oriented therapies, such as narrative therapy and solution-focused therapy, ask clients to look for exceptions, so shame-based perfectionists have the opportunity to challenge excessively high standards and others’ evaluations of the self.

In some cases, such as with sexual abuse, the client had no responsibility for the shame-engendering experience and so the therapeutic goal is not the change of focus from shame to guilt. Rather, it is about appropriately externalising the blame back onto the abuser: putting where it belongs. As such clients construct new meaning for long-standing wounds, their shame may shift to anger or sadness. These emotions can be growth-producing in that they point to adaptive actions appropriate to the situation: for example, reaching out to connect to others in sadness and using anger to assert one’s right to life one’s own life without shame (Dearing & Tangney, 2011).

Summary

Much can be written about this intensely painful, complex, and often misunderstood topic of shame. In this article we have looked into how you can identify it in your therapy room, what the typical shame-related states of mind tend to be, and the kinds of transferences that typically pop up in session. We have suggested a four-component framework for treating it which includes accessing and acknowledging it, deepening relational validation, helping the client to regulate the shame, and eventually transforming the shame into other, more adaptive emotions. Paradoxically, the ultimate arbiter of your effectiveness in dealing with client shame is your willingness to be with your own shame.

References

  • Dearing, R.L., & Tangney, J.P., Eds. (2011). Working with shame in the therapy hour: Summary and integration. Shame in the therapy hour. Washington, D.C.: APA Books.
  • LeJeune, J. (2016). 20 science-based recommendations for therapy with highly self-critical or shame-prone clients. ACT with compassion. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • Sack, D. (2015). 5 ways to silence shame. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • Sholl, J. (2013). Shutting shame down. Experience Life. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • Zaslav, M. R. (1998). Shame-related states of mind in psychotherapy. J Psychother Pract Res. 1998 Spring; 7(2), 154-166.

AIPC (2021). Busting Common Myths About Anger. Issue 355 // Institute Inbrief. Retrieved June 17, 2021.AIPC (2021). Busting Common Myths About Anger. Issue 355 // Institute Inbrief. Retrieved June 17, 2021.

All human beings experience anger at least occasionally. It’s a natural emotion helping us recognise that we or someone or something we care about has been violated or treated badly. When we feel threatened or our goals are thwarted, anger is a coping mechanism that enables us to act decisively, especially in situations where there is little time to reason things out. It can motivate problem-solving, goal-achievement, and the removing of threats. It serves a protective function and is not always a problem (Lowth, 2018; Stosny, 2020; Zega, 2009).

But anger is a complex emotion, and all too often manifests maladaptively in clients’ lives, when they perceive excessive need for protection, protect the “wrong” things, or use anger to thwart their longer-term best interests. The result is problem anger.

Perhaps because it is so multi-faceted, misperceptions about anger abound, and the question arises: how shall we regard anger? How do we advise the client to think about it? Folk wisdom often would say that the best thing to do is just let it all out, but is it? Clients complain that they cannot control it, that the tendency to be easily angered is inherited, but again, is there evidence for that? Here are common myths people tend to hold about anger, and factual statements following them that you can use to clarify for the client why learning to deal with problem anger is time well spent.

Myth 1: “Anger is inherited.”

This is the client that may try to claim that their father was short-tempered and they have inherited that trait from him, so there is nothing they can do. Such a stance implies an attitude that the expression of anger is a fixed, unalterable set of behaviours. Research shows, however, that expression of anger is learned, so if we have – say, through exposure to aggressive influential others, such as parents – learned to be violent in our expressions, we can also learn healthier, more appropriate, pro-social ways of dealing with it.

Myth 2: “Anger and aggression are the same thing.”

Fact: Nope. Anger is a felt emotional state. Aggression is a behaviour, sometimes carried out in response to anger, but not the same as it. A person can be angry, yet use healthy methods of expression without resorting to violence, threats, or other aggression. Anger does not always lead to aggression. In fact, some experts claim that most daily anger is not followed by aggression. When it does result in aggression the “I3 Model” (pronounced “I cubed”) is deemed responsible. This suggests that aggression emerges as a function of three interacting factors, which all begin with “I”:

Instigation, an event which instils an urge to aggress as a result of, say, being addressed rudely or learning that one’s partner has had an affair (or a relatively “minor” event, such as being cut off in traffic);

Impellance, meaning a force that increases the urge to act in response to an instigating stimulus. These could be strong hormonal releases or a belief system which says that the instigating event should not be tolerated, or even a sociocultural norm which demands that instigating stimuli be responded to immediately and harshly (such as punching back someone who has hit you);

Inhibition, referring to forces that typically work to counter aggression, such as cultural norms, awareness of negative consequences, or perspective-taking or empathy (Kassinove & Tafrate, 2019).

Myth 3: “Other people make me angry.”

Fact: How often in common parlance do we say things like, “He made me so angry!” or “You make me so mad I could kill you!”? Even though we may occasionally speak about people causing emotions other than anger, it is far more frequent to hear such statements in regard to anger. We can choose whether or not we let someone else’s behaviour make us happy, sad, or something else, but we often think and talk about it as if anger is caused directly by others. With the undiscerning listener, an angry person thus gets to use anger as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. Ultimately, it is not the other person’s behaviour that causes our anger, and in fact, it’s not even their intention, though that may influence our behaviour. Being precise, we must acknowledge that it is our interpretation of their intention, expressed in their behaviour/language, which is causative.

Myth 4: “I shouldn’t hold anger in; it’s better to let it out” (either by venting or catharsis).

Fact: If by “holding it in” someone means that they suppress anger, it’s true; ignoring it won’t make it go away and squashing it down is not a healthy choice. Neither, however, is venting. Blowing up in an aggressive tirade only fuels the fire, reinforcing the problem anger. Ditto the use of pillow-punching or other means of catharsis; this may come as a surprise to therapists trained a few years ago, when catharsis was an anger management technique in good standing. Now researchers have found that, even though we feel better in the moment after hitting something, our brain notices, subtly changing its wiring. Then the next time we are angry it softly whispers, “Hit something; you’ll feel better”. The time after that, the wiring is stronger in the brain towards a hitting catharsis, and the angry-brain-voice speaks a little louder. Continuing in this vein means that eventually, we could decide to hit something more alive than a pillow. Rather than either angry venting or catharsis is the use of skills to manage the angry impulse.

Myth 5: “Anger, aggression, and intimidation help me to earn respect and get what I want.”

Fact: People may be afraid of a bully, but they don’t respect those who cannot control themselves or deal with opposing viewpoints. Communicating respectfully is a far superior way to get (most) people to listen and accommodate one’s needs. While the momentary power that comes with successful intimidation may feel heady in the moment, it does not help build the healthy relationships that most people coming to counselling yearn to have.

Myth 6: Anger affects only a certain category of people.

Fact: Anger is a universal emotion that affects everyone. It does not discriminate against people of any particular age, nationality, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, or religion. It is tempting for some people in the educated middle classes to believe that anger is more prevalent among the poor, or those who are less educated or lacking in social skills. Reality does not bear this out, although the expressions of anger do vary among different social groups. Remember, anger is just an emotion, one which does not make people “good” or “bad” for having it.

Myth 7: “I can’t help myself. Anger isn’t something you can control.”

We don’t always get to control the situations of our lives, and some of them may trigger our anger. In fact, it’s also agreed by experts that we don’t (in the short-term) control whether we have angry feelings or not; they just come – although there are longer-term ways to work with clients that see them less easily provoked, and therefore less prone to have the experience of anger. What we do have the short-term choice to control is how we express that anger. Continuing in sessions with you (the therapist) for the purpose of learning how to better handle anger means having more choices of response, even in highly provocative situations.

Myth 8: “When I’m angry I will say what I really mean.”

Fact: This is rarely true. Uncontrolled angry expressions are more about gaining control of or hurting others, not saying what a person’s deepest truth is. 

Myth 9: “By not saying what I’m thinking in the moment, I’m being dishonest and will be even angrier later.”

Fact: There is a strong pull to “speak our mind” when angry. But it is at this time that a person’s judgment is most severely flawed. To speak from anger is to allow the impulsive part of the brain to overrule the rational part. Better for relationships, career, and pretty much everything else to wait until that reasoning part can regain control.

Myth 10: “Men are angrier than women.”

Fact: The sexes experience the same amount of anger, says research; they just express it differently. Men often use aggressive tactics and expressions, whereas women (often constrained culturally) more frequently choose indirect means of expression, such as found in passive-aggressive tactics. This could mean getting back at someone by talking negatively about them or cutting them out of their lives (categories adapted from: Therapist Aid LLC, 2016; Segal & Smith, 2018; Morin, 2015; Morrow, n.d.; Better Relationships, 2021; Gallagher, 2001).

Thought for reflection

Anger has many facets to it, and we have introduced some information here that may seem either startling or counterintuitive. As you think back over the myths we just debunked, which aspect has surprised you the most? Do you have any sense of why that might be? One woman, for example, was very surprised to hear that “men are angrier than women” was only considered a myth; it turned out that in her family, women “never got angry” (we hypothesise that perhaps they were socialised to not show anger), and the men got angry all the time (perhaps more allowed in that woman’s family/culture). In what ways, if at all, might your views about anger have shaped how you behave? How you respond to others? 

And here’s the ultimate question if you share this material with a client: what are their responses to the above questions? How might hearing these myths help them seek more adaptive ways to deal with problem anger? 

The upcoming Mental Health Academy course, “Helping Clients Deal with Problem Anger” draws from numerous therapies and neuroscience to help clinicians and clients collaboratively create a program to address each client’s unique challenges with this universal human emotion.

References:

  1. Better Relationships. (2021). Common myths about anger. Anglicare Southern Queensland. Retrieved on 13 April, 2021, from: Website.
  2. Gallagher, E. (2001). Anger. eddiegallagher.com.au. Retrieved on 13 April, 2021, from: Website.
  3. Kassinove, H., & Tafrate, R.C. (2019). The practitioner’s guide to anger management: Customizable interventions, treatments, and tools for clients with problem anger. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 
  4. Lowth, M. (2018). Anger management. Patient. Retrieved on 7 April, 2021, from: Website.
  5. Morin, A. (2015). 7 myths about anger and why they’re wrong. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 13 April, 2021, from: Website.
  6. Morrow, A. (n.d.). Anger myths. Stress and Anger Management Institute. Retrieved on 13 April, 2021, from: Website.
  7. Segal, J., & Smith, M. (2018). Anger management: Tips and techniques for getting anger under control. Helpguide.org. Retrieved on 9 April, 2021, from: Website.    
  8. Stosny, S. (2020). Beyond anger management. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 9 April, 2021, from: Website.
  9. Therapist Aid, LLC. (2016). Anger warning signs. Therapist Aid LLC. Retrieved on 7 April, 2021, from: Website.
  10. Zega, K. (2009). Holistic Psychotherapy (159). Retrieved on 7 April, 2021, from: Website.

Addressing Paranoia in CounsellingAddressing Paranoia in Counselling

Retrieved from Issue 346 of Institute Inbrief 20/01/2021

Paranoia: Definition and levels

When a person believes that others are “out to get them”, trying to stalk or harm them, or paying excessive attention to them for no reason, they may be experiencing paranoia. Occurring in many mental health conditions, paranoia is most often present in psychotic disorders. It involves intense anxious or fearful feelings and thoughts, most often related to persecution, threat, or conspiracy (Mental Health America, n.d.). It can be a symptom of illnesses such as schizophrenia, brief psychosis, paranoid personality, psychotic depression, mania with psychotic features, delusional disorders, or substance abuse (chronic or momentary) (Barron, 2016).

Mental health experts have identified three levels of paranoia:

  1. Paranoid personality disorder (PPD): Characterised by odd or eccentric ways of thinking, PPD involves an unrelenting mistrust and suspicion of others when there is no reason to be suspicious. It is one of the personality disorders in the DSM-5’s Cluster A, along with schizoid and schizotypal personality disorders. Thought to be the mildest form of paranoia, a person with PPD may still be able to function in relationships, employment, and social activities. The onset is typically in early adulthood and is more common in men than in women.
     
  2. Delusional (paranoid) disorder: Found in the DSM-5 chapter, “Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders”, this is a condition in which an individual holds one major false belief or delusion; it will often be an implausible but not bizarre delusion. A delusional disorder typically occurs without any other signs of mental illness. So a person might think that others are talking behind their back if they have a persecutory delusion, or believe that they need immediate medical attention for a (non-existent) medical problem if they have a somatic delusion. This condition is slightly more common in women than men.
     
  3. Schizophrenia with bizarre delusions: People with this condition do not function well in society and need consistent treatment (Sunrise House, 2018; WebMD, 2018).This is the most severe form of paranoia, involving bizarre delusions without basis, such as that aliens are trying to abduct them, or that an unseen enemy is removing their internal organs and replacing them with others’ organs.


This article is about Levels (1) and (2), the paranoid personality disorder (PPD) and delusional disorder, which you may encounter more commonly, either in your client or the client’s partner.

Identifying paranoia

We have several options for finding out what characteristics should be called “paranoid”: we can assess how we experience the person — how we describe them and what they evoke in us — and/or we can run with DSM-5 descriptions, which outline the clinical symptoms we can observe specifically with the paranoid personality disorder and delusional disorder. Let’s do both.

Descriptions of the paranoid person

Joe Navarro, who has written extensively about mental disorders, asked those who had either lived with or been victimised by paranoid personality types to describe this personality type from their experiences. Here is the list of some of their words:

“Angry, anxious, apprehensive, combative, complainer, contrarian, critical, delusional, demanding, difficult, distrustful, disturbed, eccentric, fanatic, fearful, fixated, fussy, guarded, hard-headed, inhospitable, intense, irrational, know-it-all, menacing, mentally rigid, moralistic, obsessed, odd, offensive, opinionated, sensitive, peculiar, pedantic, quarrelsome, questioning, rigid, scary, strict, stubborn, suspicious, tense, threatening, tightly-wound, touchy, unforgiving, unhappy, vindictive, wary, watchful, withdrawn” (Navarro, 2016).

What they evoke in us:

Experiencing a relationship with someone described by such intense words as those above cannot fail to bring forth a reaction in us. Laurel Nowak (2018) outlines the common feelings evoked by paranoid individuals in those with whom they are in relationship. She talks about: “feeling weighed down, negative, stressed, isolated from the people and activities you used to enjoy, and like you’re walking on eggshells”. Some have noted that it can feel to the other person like they are not being seen — ever — for who they truly are. The exaggerated negative spin on events or in response to statements occurs in the context of relating which lacks tenderness, humour, or comfort (Navarro, 2016). While these authors are describing feelings evoked in intimate relationships with paranoid individuals, they could have been talking about how therapists feel when faced with a client with this condition. Dealing with such a person eats away at the most robust sense of happiness and self-esteem. Here are the DSM-5 symptoms.

Paranoid Personality Disorder: DSM-5 symptoms description

According to the DSM-5, there are two primary diagnostic criteria for Paranoid Personality Disorder, of which Criterion A has seven sub-features. Four of these must be present to warrant a diagnosis of PPD:

Criterion A is: Global mistrust and suspicion of others’ motives which commences in adulthood. The seven sub-features of Criterion A are:

  1. Belief others are using, lying to, or harming them, without apparent evidence thereof
  2. Doubts about the loyalty and trustworthiness of friends and associates
  3. Inability to confide in others due to the belief that their confidence will be betrayed
  4. Interpretation of ambiguous or benign remarks as hurtful or threatening
  5. Holding grudges (being unforgiving of insults, injuries, or slights)
  6. In the absence of objective evidence, belief that their reputation or character are being assailed by others; retaliation in some manner
  7. Being jealous and suspicious without cause that intimate partners are being unfaithful.


Criterion B is that the above symptoms will not be during a psychotic episode in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depressive disorder with psychotic features (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Delusional Disorder: DSM-5 definition and types

According to the DSM-5, this condition is characterised by at least one month of delusions but no other psychotic symptoms. Delusions are false beliefs based on incorrect inference about external reality that persist despite the evidence to the contrary; these beliefs are not ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture. In delusional disorder (a moderate level of paranoia), a person experiences non-schizophrenic (i.e., not bizarre) delusions, such as that they are that they are being spied on. Because only thoughts are affected, a person with a delusional disorder can act normal and function in everyday life, although they may display paranoia or other symptoms related to their delusion. The five types of delusions people with this disorder have are:

  1. Erotomanic, where there is a belief that a person with higher social or financial standing (such as the president or a movie star) is in love with them; it can lead to stalking and obsession.
     
  2. Grandiose, involving the false belief that the person has a special power or ability not shared by anyone else (such as that they are extremely lucky and will always win at the casino).
     
  3. Jealous: a mistaken belief that a current or former loved one is unfaithful or even harmful. Paranoia about the loved one’s words or actions can be a symptom of these delusions.
     
  4. Persecutory, in which the common sense of the paranoia is that someone is out to get the individual, because the person believes they are being threatened, mistreated, or that they will be harmed in the future.
     
  5. Somatic: a delusion in which the individual believes that they have an illness, disability or physical defect (Sunrise House, 2018; Mental Health America, n.d.; Bourgeois, 2017).


Treating and coping with paranoia

For the therapist

First, we must note the common advice: a person suffering from either PPD or a delusional disorder needs to seek professional help, although most such individuals do not believe that they are paranoid; rather, they think they are perceptive, noticing things that no one else sees. In this sense, it can be difficult to get such a person to therapy, as the condition tends to be ego syntonic. If such an individual turns up in your therapy rooms, however, note that a referral to a medical doctor is in order to determine if medication is needed.

Medication generally is not a major focus of treatment for PPD; therapy is. However, medications, such as anti-anxiety, antidepressant, or anti-psychotic drugs, might be prescribed if the person’s symptoms are extreme, or if he or she also suffers from an associated psychological problem, such as anxiety or depression (WebMD, 2018).

With delusional disorders, the diagnosed individual begins a combination of medication and psychotherapy. The anti-psychotic medication helps the individual improve enough to be able to understand reality and the need for therapeutic help. In milder cases, the individual may receive anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants, which allows them to undergo therapy, where they learn coping skills, how to recognise delusions as false, and how to manage stress or difficult feelings. Hospitalisation may sometimes be indicated to stop the person from harming themselves or others during violent delusions (Sunrise House, 2018).

As the condition affects the client’s thought patterns and beliefs, it can be worked with effectively using cognitive behavioural therapy, which transforms the unrealistic, maladaptive thoughts by replacing them with more helpful, realistic adaptive thoughts. In addition, some therapists have observed that psychodynamic work, such as object relations, can help paranoid clients look into reasons for becoming mistrustful and suspicious which arise from early childhood relationships (Everyday Health, n.d.).

You might be asking, “Wait a minute; chief symptoms are a tendency to be suspicious and an inability to trust. How, then, can a therapist make any reasonable headway with such a client, given that trust is the basis for any solid therapeutic alliance?” If you twigged to this issue, congratulations; you have nailed the problem: how to keep the paranoid client in therapy long enough for enough trust to be built so that real progress can be made. Building trust is where the challenge is, no matter what modality is being used with the client.

To help a client in relationship with a person living with paranoia

You are likely to see the partner of a person acting paranoid. Once it is established that some form of paranoia is indeed the diagnosis, some clear guidelines exist for helping the partner. Some of the following tips also hold true for therapists working with this client population.

Setting boundaries. The paranoid person needs compassion and understanding, true, but that does not equate to acceptance of poor treatment on the grounds that the person has a disorder and is frustrated. Clear lines of what is acceptable and what is not must be drawn; those expectations for decent treatment must be communicated clearly, including around the issue of refusing to collude with delusional thinking (compromising one’s own needs) because of the person’s paranoia or fear.

Practicing self-care. For therapists and partners alike, this one is paramount! Dealing with this disorder is exhausting and sometimes heart-breaking. Those in close relationships (whether intimate or therapeutic) with paranoid individuals must have regular, solid habits of self-care. All the usual practices go into this category: relaxation/meditation, exercise, decent diet, support systems activated, and perhaps journalling or creative work to vent frustrations. Particularly for partners of those with PPD or a delusional disorder, maintaining a healthy social life — not allowing oneself to become isolated — is important.

Don’t abandon own stance, but empathise with their fear. If either the partner of the paranoid person or you, as therapist, hear an accusation that seems really “off” — totally unfounded — you can employ the tactic of empathising with the feeling, but not necessarily agreeing with the facts (though outright disagreeing doesn’t work, either). Carrie Baron, M.D., and Director of the Resilience Program at Dell Medical School in Texas, explains that consoling the person and refuting what they have said will not likely alter any paranoid convictions or delusions. What works better is “observation, reflection, curiosity and openness without judgment”, which lead to better understanding (Barron, 2016). Thus, the partner could say to the paranoid person, “I can imagine you’re worried if you think that the inheritance you counted on for your retirement might be taken away through your dad marrying. Have you observed any behaviour that made you question her motives?” (curiosity). However they do it, partners of people with any form of paranoia must look beneath the surface before getting swept up in the partner’s claims (Barron, 2016).

Recognise that the paranoid person can still contribute to life. Because of the fact that mild or moderate forms of paranoia are circumscribed, showing up only in particular thoughts and delusions, only those involved or accused may be aware of the psychopathology of the condition. The person can thus contribute to family life, work, and aspects of social life in positive ways, which you as therapist can help highlight for the partner.

Having either a client or a client’s partner who is paranoid is not easy, but the worst heartbreak and chaos can be avoided if the person can engage treatment, including medication when necessary.

References:

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.(5th Edition). Washington, DC.: APA.
  2. Barron, C. (2016). 7 Tips for coping with a paranoid partner. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  3. Bourgeois, J. (2017). Delusional disorder. Medscape. Retrieved on 9 December, 2018, from: Website.
  4. Everyday Health. (n.d.) Coping with paranoia in a loved one. Everyday Health. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  5. Mental Health America. (n.d.). Paranoia and delusional disorders. Mental Health America. Retrieved on 6 December, 2018, from: Website.
  6. Navarrro, J. (2016). The paranoid partner: Identifying the paranoid personality in relationships. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  7. Nowak, L. (2018). Paranoid personality disorder and relationships: Moving past fear, together. Bridges to Recovery. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
  8. Sunrise House. (2018). Is there a difference between paranoia and delusional disorders? American Addiction Centers. Retrieved on 9 December, 2018, from: Website.
  9. WebMD. (2018). Paranoid personality disorder. WebMD LLC. Retrieved on 9 December, 2018, from: Website.

Self-sabotage is self-sabotaging. Why would anyone do this?Self-sabotage is self-sabotaging. Why would anyone do this?

As I always like to say, there are as many reasons why people self-sabotage as there are people. A common theme is to protect the self from failure, feeling things we don’t want to feel, and to control our experiences.

One of the hidden culprits behind self-sabotage is the need for perfection and control. Self-sabotage has a strange way of helping us maintain the illusion that if only we had put in more effort or had better circumstances, everything would have worked out as it should. Social psychologists call this counter-intuitive strategy of regulating self-esteem ‘self-handicapping.’ It’s very seductive to engage in self-sabotage because the hidden payoff is high. It’s often easier to be a perfect whole rather than a real part. It’s a short-term solution that sidesteps the more arduous but ultimately more fulfilling work of individuation and self-realization. It takes risk, patience, suffering, and ultimately wisdom to come to the place where you can let go of self-sabotage and learn how to be real.

Behaviour is said to be self-sabotaging when it creates problems in daily life and interferes with long-standing goals. The most common self-sabotaging behaviors include procrastination, self-medication with alcohol and other drugs, comfort eating, and forms of self-injury such as cutting.

Self-sabotage originates in the internal critic we all have, the side that has been internalized by the undermining and negative voices we’ve encountered in our lives. This critic and ‘internal sabotuer,’ functions to keep the person from risking being hurt, shamed, or traumatized in the ways they had been in the past. While it keeps the individual safe, it does so at a very high cost, foreclosing the possibility of new, creative, and three-dimensional experiences. Like an addiction, self-sabotage insidiously lulls and deludes us into thinking that it has the answer. In fact, it is the problem masquerading as the solution. Nothing stops self-sabotage faster in its tracks than shining this particular light on it. Consciousness is true power. We need to let go of our illusions of omnipotence and perfection and see that it is only when we are real and imperfect that we can create a true work of art. Then and only then we can enjoy the gifts of being Real.

– Michael Alcée, Ph.D., Relational therapist/ Clinical psychologistArt: Bawa Manjit, Acrobat

Self-Sabotage | Psychology Today Australia